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Foolish pride, foolish arrogance—feed the fire with that vain Self!

This article completes the series based on Attar’s Canticle of Birds (also known as the Conference of the Birds), following “The nightingale and the rose: from attachment to renunciation” and “Our intimate enemy: the imperious self”. We now turn to an aspect of the imperious self that stalks all spiritual seekers: pride and arrogance in spirituality. Attar evokes it in the form of an earthy anecdote…

Excerpt 3 – Spiritual pride and arrogance

How Sheikh Abou Bakr’s Self-Satisfaction was Reproved

Sheikh Abou Bakr of Neishapour one day
Led his disciples through a weary way.

His donkey carried him, aloof, apart –
And then the beast let out a monstrous fart!

The sheikh began to tear his clothes and cry
Till one of his disciples asked him why.

The sheikh said: ‘When I looked I saw a sea
Of my disciples sworn to follow me;

They filled the roads and in my mind there slid
The thought: ‘By God, I equal Bayazid!

So many praise me, can I doubt this sign
That heaven’s boundless glories will be mine?’

Then as I triumphed in my inmost heart,
My donkey answered me – and with a fart;

My pompous, self-deceiving soul awoke,
And this is why I weep and tear my cloak.’

How far away the truth remains while you
Are lost in praise for all you say and do –

Destroy your arrogance, and feed the fire
With that vain Self you foolishly admire.

(Fârid-ud-Dîn ‘Attâr, The Canticle of the Birds, Diane de Selliers Éditeur, transl. A. Darbandi & D. Davis, 2013, d. 2933 to 2946)

What lessons can be drawn from this account?

The aim here is to interpret this excerpt, in particular the end of the story, in light of the thought of Ostad Elahi. The highlighted points below may provide keys for understanding it. Ostad Elahi often evokes in his teachings the question of pride and arrogance, that he describes as “the worst effect of the imperious self” (Words of Truth, 170, draft of the forthcoming English translation), or even an illness of the soul “that is difficult, if not impossible, for students of spirituality to cure” (Words of Truth, 350). The pride and arrogance in question are the spiritual pride and arrogance that will lead someone to be self-satisfied, to glorify themselves for their actions and virtues. The particularly harmful consequence for people in such a state is that they are blind to themselves, in particular to their own flaws and weak points. They become incapable of identifying their imperious self, of putting up a fight against it, and in the end, of progressing spiritually: “As [the arrogant person] cannot see his flaws, they afflict his soul like a cancer” (Words of Truth, 27). Pride and arrogance are then literally obstacles that undermine, in a very subtle way and from the inside, all will to fight and to progress. Pride and arrogance furthermore expose us to serious dangers, as “[i]t is impossible for those who do not have pride to be cut off from God; conversely, it is impossible for those who are afflicted with pride not to be cut off from Him” (Words of Truth, 350).

Here are some tips for a practice to better gage and fight one’s pride and arrogance:

  • Cultivate one’s awareness of one’s flaws: “The best spiritual quality is the ability to always see our own flaws in the mirror of our heart, and to consider ourselves as the lowest and most fallible.” (Words of Truth, 170).
  • Fight against one’s spiritual expectations, such as: “If the imperious self asks, ‘How is it that after years of ascetic practice, you have yet to understand the divine essence,’ we should strike it down and reply, ‘Just knowing that God exists and my own purpose is enough for me!’” (Words of Truth, 444).

Bahram Elahi furthermore specifies (see this conference) that a particularly favorable environment for pride and arrogance is that of “idealistic” people who, because they rarely expose themselves to in vivo practice and real battles against their imperious self, cannot concretely gage their limits. As a result, they tend to attribute themselves imaginary qualities ; they always believe that they are right and that they understand things better than others. In this conference, Bahram Elahi gives us the key for analyzing spiritual pride and arrogance, and by doing so helps us transpose this poem to the reality of our everyday lives. Spiritual pride and arrogance indeed do not necessarily take on explicit forms, such as obvious arrogance towards others. The spiritual arrogance of idealists, an elusive and oblique reality, hides in the most invisible nooks of our hearts. It can be measured by the lack of humility and gratitude we manifest toward the One when we strive to engage in a dialogue with Him, or in our very negligence of this practice. It can be measured by our inability to truly listen to criticisms when someone points out some of our flaws or weaknesses—or worse even, our inability to realize that others have given up blaming us for anything, given the hard shell of pride and arrogance that we have built around us. By placing ourselves in such a position of (imaginary) superiority, we discourage others from voicing even the most hesitant of criticisms. Spiritual pride and arrogance thus confines people in some superb inner isolation where they remain quite oblivious to their true flaws and can thus fully enjoy their imaginary merits.

How far away the truth remains while you
Are lost in praise for all you say and do –

Destroy your arrogance, and feed the fire
With that vain Self you foolishly admire.

What about you?

If you are viewing this article from the mobile app, click here to participate in the poll.

1. Have you ever become conscious of your imperious self manifesting itself in a sudden, flagrant, or even “explosive” way, as shown in this story?

How did that make you feel? What conclusions did you draw from this experience? Don’t hesitate to share your experience in the comments section!

2. More generally, have you ever become conscious of a fault or weakness through a more methodical approach—for example by observing your reactions to small daily life events or by paying attention to criticisms from your close family and friends?

Access directly to the poll results if you have already voted

What can you conclude from your answer? Don’t hesitate to share your experience in the comments section!

3. Have you ever identified a form of pride in your relation to the One?

In what context and in what form has that “foolish” pride manifested itself within you? Did you take measures to fight against it? Don’t hesitate to share your experience in the comments section!

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  1. Nooshie Oct 07, 2018 5:57 am 1

    1- I recall an instant when all I could think about were horrible negative thoughts. When I realized that they were being generated by my imperious self and I couldn’t stop them, I screamed out loud “oh God please save me,” suddenly I saw myself at His feet being surrounded by a bubble of protection emanating from Him which took away my anxiety and shielded me from my imperious self.

    2- Most recently I encountered a person who was given everything and yet nothing was enough for her. I became very angry at her for feeling so entitled. Upon further reflection, I realized I was in fact angry at myself for having felt a strong sense of entitlement especially towards the One.

    3- I’m extremely embarrassed to say that because I didn’t receive a spiritual reward that I thought I was entitled to my arrogance and pride caused me to walk away from Him. I can’t express how painful this separation has been for me. When I realized how foolish I had been, I started praying and begging for forgiveness. Fortunately, His infinit grace helped me find my way back to Him.

  2. A.R Oct 07, 2018 6:40 pm 2

    I have been looking to find myself a life partner to get married for a long time. Since I had been looking for so long, I started to think that maybe being single was something that He wanted for me and I just needed to wait more for now, or maybe my patience was being tested.

    Then I realized that this way of thinking was coming from pride, interestingly enough, I didn’t find myself trying hard enough to find a partner! It seemed like I was feeling “I am a perfect person and I just haven’t been discovered yet or maybe the proper opportunity has not been given to me yet, otherwise I would have been with a partner!”

    I think the proper mindset would be looking at my own flaws and trying to fix them by fighting against them in vivo. Maybe I am too afraid of getting rejected, or I don’t want anyone to find me boring or maybe I need to work on my social skills more so that I’ll be more interesting when I take someone out on a date…

    Sitting idle and passive and waiting for Him to send me a partner out of nowhere is just plain wrong, being passive and idle kind of means that I think I am perfect and nothing is left on my part to work on and the rest is all in His hands, which is the wrong attitude in my situation.

    1. kbld Oct 20, 2018 10:12 pm 2.1

      I totally agree.
      Close to this, there is the tentation to try to “force” God to choose instead of us for material matters, by saying, “I do this thing that leaves the possibility of either outcome, and if God wants one outcome or the other, he will make it that this happens so that it will be that outcome”. For example, somebody told me he was hesitating between two candidates at one election, so he put randomly one of the ballots without knowing which one, so that God’s wish would be accomplished (whereas he acknowledged later there was clearly a better candidate). Once I did a similar thing for a smaller issue, but finally the outcome was rather bad (clear waste of time) and I understood that it was because I wanted God to resolve my material problems and my irresolution. So I made it a rule not to let intentionally “chance” decide instead of me. God decides anyway the outcome of all things, but we have to take our own responsibilities, decide and act in good conscience.
      On the other hand, I used to ignore signs, i.e. odd things that happen and tend to show a path, for that reason, but I understood it was wrong too.

    2. adissam Nov 04, 2018 3:56 pm 2.2

      I agree, being idle and passive can be a subtle form of pride. More generally, such an attitude can be detrimental to other pursuits in life. A few questions come to mind before attributing a situation to divine providence: have I been active enough? Is what I’m pursuing reasonable and correct (i.e. within the law, norms and ethics)? Do I use all the legitimate tools at my disposal in an intelligent way?
      Thank you for bringing up this subject. This has led me to think more thoroughly about my intentions of finding a spouse and forming a mutual and responsible life.
      For that purpose, I’ve found the dedicated chapter in “The Path of Perfection” to be useful. Each time I read it, I discover a new aspect or detail (e.g. what criteria increase the likelihood of a successful marital life).

      I’m wondering what made you think that it was “wrong” to dismiss these signs.

      For the question of pride and finding a spouse, pride could be positive if it’s a form of dignity.
      A solid foundation is crucial in my opinion (are we psychologically in line for example?).

      1. kbld Dec 08, 2018 6:54 pm 2.2.1

        I guess it is the mere fact that I saw that these were actual signs, and that following them would have led to a better outcome. There is a very fine line between becoming superstitious and “listening to signs”. I think the primordial rule is to not /look for/ such signs to resolve material problems. On the other hand, being attentive to the spiritual aspect of everything is essential, but it is general and different: these signs are about things that you cannot understand, whereas general attentiveness is about reasonable lessons that life brings to us.
        I think, in natural spirituality, in general, odd events should lead us to think again, not to abdicate the use of reason.

  3. MDor Oct 07, 2018 7:42 pm 3

    Thanks for the article. My response to the third question was No. Any help to understand how one can be proud in her/his relation to the One would be much appreciated.

    1. pzlz Oct 14, 2018 5:55 pm 3.1

      I answered no too, and your question made me think long and hard about it. Well I thought who in the worlds would be foolish enough to have pride in relationship to the One? After all, we are talking about the One! Of course I would see myself as a speck of dust in relationship to Him. Then I thought about examples such as Azazil, I thought about manifestations, the why, the how, the mechanisms… soon enough I realized none of those matter. Pride is absolutely the worst of them all. And the only practical way out of it is to go out there and try to do the right thing in vivo and face our limitations and weaknesses, acknowledge them and become humble. Think about it, why do we tend to avoid in vivo practice? IT IS PAINFUL! But that is where the treasure lies.

  4. A. Oct 07, 2018 8:05 pm 4

    Have you ever become conscious of your imperious self, manifesting itself in a sudden, flagrant, or even “explosive” way, as shown in this story? How did that make you feel? What conclusions did you draw from this experience?

    As I was riding my scooter on the Parisian sidewalks, consciously indifferent to the fears of bystanders, suddenly I found myself taking off and then lying and groaning in pain a few meters away. Only then did I become aware of my interior state of indifference and carelessness in relation to others which had so suddenly manifested itself.

    Another time, as I was driving through a forest, unaware that I was overcome by an intense state of anxiety for some material reasons, a deer literally jumped over my windshield, knocking one of its hooves against it. After some initial worry that the poor animal had been hurt, I started to wonder why and make the link with my inner state.

    Or even a couple of days ago, I was complaining a lot to myself about my wife’s desire to make me drive 6 hours to go spend Christmas with some relatives whose company I do not enjoy too much, when someone inadvertently hit me with his backpack.

    In all these situations, I became aware of my imperious self’s intense ruminations and force, somewhat quickly. My main feeling was that of surprise and to a lesser extent a sense of humility.

    The main lesson I took was that He is constantly watching over me and without His help the imperious self is often invisible.

  5. A. Oct 07, 2018 8:21 pm 5

    More generally, have you ever become conscious of a fault or weakness through a more methodical approach—for example by observing your reactions to small daily life events or by paying attention to criticisms from your close family and friends?
    What can you conclude from your answer? Don’t hesitate to share your experience in the comments section!
    Criticism from family members as well as work, overlap somewhat, for instance:

    • I am pessimistic (most frequent criticism)
    • poor listening skills (although I thought I had improved on this)
    • I am not on time for appointments (flaw which I did not think I had)

    Interestingly my reactions to these “inputs” varied from rejection and then to gradual acceptance, to immediate acceptance, and rejection with anger etc… it all depends of divine will.

    I conclude that criticisms are really useful and should be used to decide which practical points to work on.

  6. A. Oct 07, 2018 8:25 pm 6

    3. Have you ever identified a form of pride in your relation to the One?
    In what context and in what form has that “foolish” pride manifested itself within you? Did you take measures to fight against it? Don’t hesitate to share your experience in the comments section!

    Yes, during my intimate conversations with the One, I did not see myself as little and insignificant. Somehow I felt I was not being humble.
    I corrected the way I was picturing myself by seeing myself as a little worm crawling next to the shoes of the One.
    I felt better immediately and sensed that my previous approach and vision was warped by my pride.

    1. MDor Oct 08, 2018 1:05 am 6.1

      Thanks for your comments. It helped me understand how one can be proud in her/his relation to the One.

  7. Yan Oct 08, 2018 12:55 am 7

    3. Have you ever identified a form of pride in your relation to the One?

    I have been trying for a long time to figure out what having pride in relation to the One could mean in my daily life.

    There is a situation that I am not sure would fit this concept, but I would like to hear your thoughts:

    Psychological Disorder
    At the psychological level, I have found a disorder that is called “Intolerance of Uncertainty”.
    For a long time, I have been trying to analyze which spiritual character weakness could cause this disorder in me.

    Material Situation
    Due to the nature of my job, I work on many routine, and sometimes non-routine and complex projects. When I am working on a routine project, which I know all the aspect of, I always feel peaceful and calm at work, since I know how to deal with issues and can estimate the timelines. Even if the tasks are hard, as long as I know how to deal with them, I am fine and peaceful. However, when it comes to a complex and non-routine project, that I have no idea how to deal with, I get overwhelmed with anxiety and high levels of stress, until gradually, by passage of time, I find my path to complete the project and feel better.

    My Spiritual Interpretation
    My ego always wants me to be in control. If I am in control, it makes me feel good and peaceful. It always wants me to be sure that, no matter what, I can handle my job properly without relying on anything or anyone, even the One. My ego, implicitly, makes me ignore the Efficient, and telling me “you are in control, you are the one” in this way, it make me ignore my insignificance in relation to the One. It forces me to believe that I don’t need anything or anyone, not even Him.
    But, when it comes to non-routine projects, my ego gets annoyed and pushes this annoyance into a form of anxiety at the psychological level, “Intolerance of Uncertainty”. Because again, my ego wanted me to be in control and it couldn’t. It does not want me to know my insignificance, and the fact that I am dependent on Him for every breath I take. It doesn’t want me to remember Him and to ask Him for help, and to submit. It doesn’t want me to know that I am nothing. It doesn’t want anyone other than itself to be in control.

    I thought, this implicit ignorance of the One, is a form of hidden pride. Because embarrassingly, my ego makes me ignore my dependence on the Efficient and makes me believe I am the one in charge!

  8. Aziz Oct 08, 2018 4:39 pm 8

    About my imperious self: I was always afraid, anxious and confused; felt kind of hopeless in the face of my weaknesses. But now I understand they could be to my advantage as long as I learn to fight and to win. This is now like a game on a battle field, as I am trying to get strong with all the tools that are available to me, thanks to the One’s bounty. Every time I loose, it hurts badly but I try not to get defeated, and instead to continue to fortify my shields, specially from those attacks that come from within. It is a constant battle and this fight is a process – learning how to win – and I accept that it will not happen over night. So I stopped feeling hopeless and I am less afraid of the punches. I want to become a good inner warrior in order to achieve rightfulness with His Help.

  9. BC Oct 08, 2018 7:30 pm 9

    Once in college while I was home for the weekend visiting my family, my father asked me to come home again the following weekend. I had been invited to a big party at school and told him I couldn’t come back. He was really upset and we got into an argument about it. The argument ended with me declaring, “I’m NOT coming back next weekend and NO one can make me!”
    In the morning I woke up to the doorbell ringing and I ran to open the door. For some unexplained reason, I fainted on the spot and fell to the ground very hard. I had never before and have never since fainted. But in this instance I did and because of the fall I broke my foot and my ankle. Due to the nature of the injury I had to use crutches for six weeks with a hard cast. I spent the next 8 weeks driving home each weekend because I needed my parents help on the weekends and it was hard to stay in my dorm during the weekends with crutches.
    I always think of this scenario in a thankful manner. I felt invincible. I felt better than the life and people I had left behind. I was living on my own for the first time and I thought I was an adult. I had an extreme sense of false security. Had this fall not happened I may have forgotten where I came from and deviated from the true path for my life. I’m thankful that a higher power pushed me on my right path.

  10. Homayoun Oct 13, 2018 5:05 pm 10

    1. Anger has never been an issue for me and I was proud to not have to worry about this weakness; and then one day toward a complete stranger I lost control over my anger to the point where I am ashamed every time I think about it.
    I realized a few points: first of all that it is His help that kept me away from this weakness; and without His help I would have this weakness add up to all the others that I have to deal with; and second that my imperious self was fully aware of my pride toward this weakness; and found a time & place to use it against me.
    I learned that all weaknesses are still within me, I have not mastered any of them, I must fight against all of them; and most importantly ask for His help.

    2. I usually dismiss criticism from my family because they do not have the same beliefs I do – my pride takes over, telling me that I know better and I should not listen to their criticism.
    My conclusion is that my imperious self is using my spiritual side to bring about a type of pride that let’s me think that I know better than my family and should not listen to their criticism even though they might be correct; and I should listen carefully before dismissing it.

    3. My answer would have been NO; until I read the following above: “Lack of humility and gratitude we manifest toward the One when we strive to engage in a dialogue with Him, or in our very negligence of this practice.”
    Now I answered YES to this question; because I realized that I am not being diligent enough in my dialogue with Him, so I am being negligent.
    Since I have read this, I am working toward improving my dialogue with Him. It is still work in progress but I am trying.

  11. Mah Oct 19, 2018 10:45 am 11

    One experience that i had was when i have interactions with somebody who is at a lower social position and when i order him to do his work the way i talk to him was a sign of pride. For example if i order him to do this or that in a manner that people who were around me know that i am her superior. But if i talk to him kindly and politely thas was a sign that i fought against my pride.

  12. HSH Oct 20, 2018 11:13 am 12

    My answer to all of the above questions is yes. As an example, when I notice a manifestation of my pride toward someone, then after a while, I tell myself that it was not right, but within a short period of time, it happens again in a different form and shape. This story goes on and on and I just blame myself (actually my imperious self) and cry for His help.

  13. jwy66 Oct 31, 2018 7:00 pm 13

    1- Yes, in instances where common sense is void and communication with patience fails and basic social expectations are not met, I have been known to have had a sudden and explosive flash of anger with a sense of entitlement.

    I have often analyzed and played back such events in my mind to evaluate the root of my sense of entitlement to lash out in these instances and have often regraded the action and outcome and sensed that regardless of the situation I must strive to always have my temper under control and find ways to eliminate the imbalance that triggers outbursts of negative energy.

    2- That God speaks to us, not by way of miracles but through the small moments of our daily activity and through the voice of those that surround us and interact with us, and that the key, is to be open, to have an open heart and mind towards constructive criticisms.

    3- Feeling just a little content that I am trying to do as best I can; I always try to be conscious and meditate on a deep sense of humility and nothingness when engaging in a dialogue with the One and in my spiritual thoughts.

  14. tom Nov 07, 2018 2:36 pm 14

    One way that I am proud in relation to the One has to do with the fact that as a student when I enjoyed a certain academic success after having studied hard, I felt that I ‘deserved’ it and that God was giving me what I was owed. I have come to realize that I continue to do this in my professional life, and it has manifested into a weakness insofar as when others do not succeed, I judge them and think that God did not think they were worthy, or in some cases in my own life I feel less gratitude for being successful at something because again I feel like I am getting what I should be getting. I also expect some form of success after working hard, and when I fail, I feel a bit angry deep down.

    I am working on this very hard, first by reminding myself that whatever I have or don’t have, it is due to Him, who is the Efficient in everything, and that I am doing my duty by working hard. I also have put into practice an exercise where I ‘forget’ my success or actively stop thinking about it when I realize I am starting to flatter myself. in vivo practice here is when others talk about projects I have worked on and flatter me about them–i say ‘thank you’ and change the subject.

  15. hsh Nov 19, 2018 8:37 pm 15

    The worst way that I find myself having pride towards the One is usually through my prayers which is very regretful.

  16. Juliet Nov 29, 2018 4:52 am 16

    When I was going through a divorce (and it was a divorce I didn’t want at the beginning), I was thinking anger was a right emotion. I was being cheated on so I had to be angry. I had this right! Why not?! But then I thought, being right can be one of the most emotional aspect of anger, because when we are right, we feel completely justified in being the judge. We no longer leave room for God to be the Judge. It means I have so much pride that I think I am much wiser and better than Him at doing His job.

  17. Juliet Dec 03, 2018 5:17 am 17

    I found another aspect of pride towards God in myself. I recognized that most of the time while I am praying, I would cry and say, “God I cannot live with this pain anymore, please help me, I got the lesson, it is enough for me….”

    Now I am thinking that I am not being humble, but kind of proud in my prayers. What do I mean by saying “I cannot live like this anymore…”? How do I know? He is The One. He knows better if I can or cannot!

    I have to change the words of my prayer to something like “God help me understand that this situation is the best for me, help me get the lesson ….”

    1. Yan Dec 05, 2018 8:30 pm 17.1

      Great point Juliet. I am in the same boat. Your comment gave me perspective “He knows better if I can or cannot!”.

      I have recently changed my words to “Please help me pass this assignment. Help me act in a way that I can satisfy Your requirements for the purpose of this test, and get the result that You intended. Help me not to be ashamed and fail again.”

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